Milovan Djilas

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Milovan Djilas

The Yugoslavian writer and political prisoner Milovan Djilas (1911-1995) was the most celebrated of the Eastern European intellectuals who supported communism in the 1930s but were disillusioned by the practices of Communist regimes after 1945.

Milovan Djilas was born on June 12, 1911, in the Kingdom of Montenegro. His family was very poor, and notoriously non-conformist: his grandfather Aleksa was an anti-Ottoman bandit leader, and was supposedly assassinated by orders from the royal family, while his father Nikola, during his time as a police commandant, resisted Montenegro's incorporation into Yugoslavia after World War I. Young Milovan's education in Podbise and Berane was rich, however, and spanned the works of Marx and Lenin to Dostoevski and Tolstoy.

When Djilas attended the University of Belgrade to study literature in 1929, he was indubitably a Communist. He joined the Yugoslavian Communist party in 1932 as a student opposed to King Alexander of Yugoslavia's dictatorial monarchy. He was jailed for eight days to scare him, but when he failed to be frightened he was tortured and sent to prison for 3 years, where he met famous Communists. Upon his release he went underground as a revolutionary, siding with Tito against Stalin, even to go so far as to recruit 1,500 Yugoslav Communists to fight in the Spanish Civil War. His progress through the ranks of the party was rapid; in 1938 he was elected by Tito to the Central Committee and in 1940 to the Politburo.

During World War II, Djilas was ranked a general among the Partisan leaders for his guerilla tactics against Axis forces. He edited the party newspapers, and was chief negotiator between Axis Powers and Soviet Allies, even to Stalin himself. In 1945, after the war, he was appointed minister for the province of Montenegro and in 1948 minister without portfolio and secretary of the Politburo. In 1953 he became vice president of the Yugoslavian Republic.

Although by this time Djilas was third in the party hierarchy and Tito's heir apparent, he had become increasingly disillusioned even with Tito's brand of "national" communism. At the beginning of 1954 he published a number of newspaper articles critical of the regime, and was promptly stripped of his various offices and given a suspended sentence. In November 1956, after the publication of similar criticisms in the American journal New Leader, he was sentenced to 3 years' hard labor.

Djilas was still in prison when his book The New Class was published in September 1957 in the United States. This acute analysis of the Communist system sought to show that communism did not lead to a "withering away" of the state, as Karl Marx had predicted, but rather to the formation of a new ruling class just as selfish as any previous oligarchy. One month after the publication of The New Class he was sentenced to a further 7-year term of imprisonment.

In January 1961 Djilas was released on condition that he abstain from all political activity, but his freedom was short-lived. He was rearrested in April 1962, charged with providing material for foreign newspaper articles critical of Yugoslavia, and was sentenced to 5 years in prison, to which was added 3 1/2 years (the unserved balance of the previous sentence). Shortly afterward his book Conversations with Stalin (1962), which developed further the arguments first expressed in The New Class, was published abroad.

Djilas was not released from prison until 1966. Two years later his confiscated manuscripts were returned, together with a passport for foreign travel. His relations with the government remained tense, however, and early in 1970 his passport was removed again. He continued to write, publishing novels set in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, some of which were published while he was still in jail. He also wrote several autobiographies, including Land Without Justice (1958), an epic about his childhood that has been said to be evocative of Serbian poetry, Memoir of a Revolutionary, chronicling his early days as a Communist, Wartime (1977), about his activities during the Yugoslav Revolution and WWII, and Rise and Fall (1983), which traces his political career. After the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, The New Class was finally published in Yugoslavia in 1990, over 30 years since he had written it. He died in 1995, a free man.

Further Reading

The best biographies of Djilas are his own, Land Without Justice (1958), Memoir of a Revolutionary (1973), Wartime (1977) and Rise and Fall (1985). The most revealing books about him, however, could be his political writings: The New Class (1957) and Conversations with Stalin (trans. 1962). The best work on Yugoslavia is Phyllis Auty, Tito: A Biography (1970), which has a full bibliography. □

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Milovan Djilas

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